Shortly after the battle at Assandun in the autumn of 1016, Cnut and Edmund Ironside met to conclude a treaty dividing the rule of England between them. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (D) says:
Ða æfter þisum gefeohte wende Cnut cyning up mid his here to Gleawcestrescire, þær he ofaxade þæt se cyning wæs Eadmund. Ða gerædde Eadric ealdorman 7 þa witan þe þær gegaderade wæron þæt þa cyningas heom betweonan seht geworhtan, 7 coman begen þa cyningas togædre æt Olanige wið Deorhyrste, 7 wurdon feolagan 7 wedbroðra, 7 þæt gefæstnadan ægðer mid wedde 7 eac mid aðan, 7 þæt gyld gesettan wið þone here, 7 hi seoððan tohwurfon. 7 feng þa Eamund cyng to Westsexan 7 Cnut to þam norðdæle. Se here gewende þa to scipon mid þam þe hi gefangen hæfdon, 7 Lundenwaru gryðede wið þone here 7 heom fryð bohtan, 7 hi gebrohtan heora scypa on Lundene, 7 hæfdon þær wintersetl.
Then after this battle King Cnut turned inland with his army to Gloucestershire, where he learned that King Edmund was. Then Eadric the ealdorman and the witan who were gathered there advised that the kings should make a settlement between them. Both the kings came together at Olney, near Deerhurst, and became partners and pledged brothers and confirmed it with both pledges and oaths, and set the payment for the raiding-army, and after that they parted. King Edmund succeeded to Wessex and Cnut to the north part. The raiding-army went to their ships with what they had taken, and the inhabitants of London made a truce with the army and bought peace from them; and they brought their ships to London and took up winter-quarters there.
By saying that the two kings 'came together', the Chronicle probably only means that they had a formal meeting, but a story soon grew up that they had fought (or considered fighting) against each other in single combat. This is extremely unlikely, to say the least, but it seems to have become a popular story, and versions of the idea feature in numerous twelfth-century sources. The location of the meeting may have been what is now called Alney Island, near Gloucester, and the fact that some versions of the story claim the duel took place on an island in the Severn has led to suggestions of a connection with the custom of holmgang.
A reference to the idea of a duel is found as early as the Encomium Emmae Reginae (1040-2), which claims that a few months before Assandun Edmund had suggested single combat to Cnut:
It is told, moreover, that the youth himself at that time offered single combat to Knutr, as the latter was retiring; but the king, being a wise man, is said to have answered thus: "I will await a time, when contest will be fitting, and when anticipating no misfortune, I shall be sure of victory; but as for you, who desire combat in the winter, beware lest you fail to appear even when the time is more appropriate."
Encomium Emmae Reginae, trans. Alistair Campbell (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949), p.25.
Cnut's 'wise' and rather sarcastic response to Edmund is typical of the twelfth-century stories too, which frequently make this as much a verbal as a physical battle between the rival kings. Henry of Huntingdon's version of the story has Cnut cleverly getting himself out of danger with some high-flown words:
The armies were gathered in Gloucestershire. But the nobles, fearing on one side the strength of King Edmund and on the other that of King Cnut, said among themselves, 'Why do we so often rush foolishly into mortal danger? Let those who want to reign as individuals fight as individuals.' The idea was acceptable to the kings. For King Cnut was not lacking in prowess. The kings stationed themselves in Alney and began the duel. When both had shattered spears and lances against the most superior of all armour, they carried on with swords. The crowds on both sides heard and saw with groans and shouts the frightful clang and fiery clashes. At length the incomparable valour of Edmund began to thunder. King Cnut, resisting with great vigour, and yet in fear for himself, said to him, 'O most brave of all young men, why should either of us perish by the sword for the sake of holding kingly power? Let us be brothers by adoption, and share the kingdom, and let us rule, I in your affairs and you in mine. Let Denmark also be governed by your imperial rule.' With these words the generous mind of the young man was softened and the kiss of peace was exchanged.
Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p.361.
As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says, Cnut and Edmund divided the kingdom between north and south - a division reflecting a regional split in England which went back hundreds of years. Parts of northern England had been settled by the Danes and under Danish rule at various times since the ninth century; the society and language of the north were in places heavily influenced by Scandinavian settlement, and at this point were arguably culturally closer to Denmark than to the south of England. We've seen since the beginning of this series that in 1013-16 Svein Forkbeard and Cnut were able to count on political support from the north for Danish rule, and they treated the north differently from Wessex during their invasions. The division of the kingdom proposed in 1016 thus reflected a pre-existing cultural divide (of which the legacy can still be clearly seen today in the dialect and place-names of northern England).
What the chronicle calls the norðdæle, 'the northern part', is a huge area, stretching from the Midlands to Northumbria - geographically speaking, much more than half of England. Although over the course of the tenth century the kings of Wessex, Edmund Ironside's ancestors, had extended their power over the rest of the formerly independent kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, they actually had no older history of continuous rule in the north than Cnut's ancestors did. By 1016 both Cnut and Edmund could claim that not only had both their fathers (Svein Forkbeard and Æthelred) ruled the whole kingdom of England, but that both had ancestors who had ruled regions of the country. In the version of the Deerhurst duel told in Gaimar's Estoire des Engleis, the kings exchange long speeches in the middle of the combat, in which they discuss these rival claims to rule England. Both claims are rooted in (real or legendary) history: while Edmund claims descent from Cerdic, first king of Wessex, Cnut tells Edmund that 'Our Danish ancestors have been ruling here for a very long time: almost a thousand years before King Cerdic came to the throne, Dan was king. Cerdic was your ancestor, and king Dan was mine.' In some medieval traditions Dan was the legendary progenitor and namesake of the Danes (as Angle was of the English), so this gives Cnut an ancient and venerable pedigree. Cnut goes on to propose dividing the kingdom to which both have a right; Edmund decides he admires Cnut's 'sagacity' and the justice of his claim, and agrees to this suggestion.
Not every historian was so enamoured of the Danish claim. William of Malmesbury, by contrast, thinks Cnut avoided the duel because he was scared of Edmund's greater physical strength:
Edmund, almost the only one to get away [from the battle at Assandun] came to Gloucester, in hopes of there pulling his forces together and attacking the enemy, who would, he supposed, be off their guard after their recent victory. Nor did Cnut lack the courage to pursue him in his retreat, and the two sides took their stand in line of battle. Edmund then asked for single combat, rather than have two mortal men moved by ambition to be king carry the blood of so many of their subjects, when it was possible to put fortune to the test without the loss of any of their faithful dependents; great credit would be due to whichever of them should acquire so great a kingdom at his own private risk and no one else's. When this was reported to Cnut, he rejected it out of hand, declaring that in spirit he was a match for anyone, but did not trust his tiny frame against a man of such enormous might. Surely, since both not without reason were demanding a kingdom which had been held by the parents of both, it would be sensible to lay aside their enmity and divide England between them. This remark was taken up by both armies and ratified with massive agreement, as both consonant with justice and a benign step towards peace among mortals who were already exhausted by so much misery.
Gesta Regum Anglorum, trans. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thompson and M. Winterbottom (Oxford, 1998), vol.i, pp.317-9.
Again it's Cnut, by his 'sensible' suggestion (in this case motivated by fear!), who brings an end to the combat through words rather than battle.
And Walter Map, always one to embellish a good story, has the kings trading barbs mid-duel:
[The Danes] insisted with Cnut that the death of the whole army should not be put in the scale, but that of a single man, and that a duel should take the place of a battle, and the victorious champion obtain the kingdom for his master, and the rest be sent away in peace. Both sides were pleased with this, and it seemed good to Edmund to confront the danger himself, nor would he allow of any champion in his stead. Hearing this, Cnut decided that he must fight in propria persona, so as to avoid an unseemly disparity: for a conflict of kings would be even and fitting. All the needful arrangements were therefore made with due solemnity: a truce was granted, keepers of the ground were armed, and the two, borne in two boats from opposite banks, met on an island in the Severn, equipped with excellent and precious arms and horses to the extent necessary for honour and safeguard...
[The fight gave rise] to one memorable phrase: when their horses were slain and they became foot-soldiers, Cnut, who was slender, thin and tall, pressed Edmund, who was big and smooth - in other words, fairly stout - with such prowess and persistency of attack, that in a pause allowed for rest, Edmund stood panting heavily and drawing deep breaths; and in the hearing of the ring, Cnut said: 'Edmund, you breathe too short.' He blushed; but kept a modest silence, and at the next attack came down upon Cnut's helmet with such a stroke that he touched the ground with knee and hand; but Edmund stepped back and neither crushed the fallen foe nor harassed the down-struck; only avenging a word by a word, he retorted: 'Not too short, if I can bring so great a king off his feet.' The Danes accordingly, when they saw that Edmund had deferred to their lord in a conflict of such mighty issue, and that when victory was ready to his hand he had delayed his triumph, compelled the two by many prayers and tears to make a treaty.
Walter Map, De nugis curialium, ed. and trans. by M.R. James, revised by C.N.L. Brooke and R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford, 1983), pp.424-7.
So Cnut learned it's not a good idea to call your opponent fat...
Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, CCCC MS. 26, f.80v
These images of Cnut and Edmund fighting each other (which I've been using to illustrate various battles in this series of posts) actually depict this single combat - another indication of the popularity of the story. In the one above, you can see the Danes and English watching from the sidelines. The one below also shows Cnut and Edmund making peace:
Their kiss seals the kings' pledge to be feolagan 7 wedbroðra ('partners and pledged brothers'), but it is swiftly followed by Edmund's death, depicted on the right here. If Edmund had lived, and the division of the country had lasted, perhaps there would never again have been a single kingdom of England - a reminder that political unions which may seem to us inevitable and eternal can, in fact, fracture, and yet time goes on. Perhaps that reflection was part of the appeal of this story to twelfth-century historians, looking back at 1016 from an England which had once again been conquered by a foreign power. It was these same historians (specifically, Henry of Huntingdon and Gaimar) who gave us an even more memorable story of Cnut accepting the limits of kingly power - ceding rule to God at the sea-shore, rather than sharing half a kingdom with another earthly king. And it was Henry of Huntingdon who, in another context, encourages us to learn perspective from the sheer length of history:
Let us, however, think about what has become of those who lived in the first millennium around this time, around the 135th year... What does it matter whether they were individually noble or ignoble, renowned or unknown, praiseworthy or disreputable, exalted or cast down, wise or foolish? If any of them undertook some labour for the sake of praise and glory, when now no record of him survives any more than of his horse or his ass, why then did the wretch torment his spirit in vain? What benefit was it to them, who came to this?
Now I speak to you who will be living in the third millennium, around the 135th year. Consider us, who at this moment seem to be renowned, because, miserable creatures, we think highly of ourselves. Reflect, I say, on what has become of us. Tell me, I pray, what gain has it been to us to have been great or famous? We had no fame at all, except in God. For if we are famed now in Him, we shall still be famed in your time, as lords of heaven and earth, worthy of praise with our Lord God, by the thousands of thousands who are in the heavens.
But history always holds surprises. The divided kingdom which might have changed England forever lasted, as it turned out, only a few weeks: Edmund Ironside died on 30 November 1016, and Cnut became king of the whole of England. Edmund's death was also the subject of various lurid post-Conquest legends - but that's for another post.